So you’re Jahlil Okafor. You’re by far one of the three best college basketball players in the country and an athletic specimen some mad scientists crafted in a lab specifically to play basketball. Not only that, you were injected with personality traits to play Duke basketball for Coach K. You have always slapped the hardwood on defense and did not understand why until this year.
When you play beside the average college basketball player, one of normal traits and skills and wingspan, you don’t resemble a man among boys or an NBA legend battling elementary school kids; no, you appear as a balling robot sent to destroy opponents with cold calculations of productive potency, committing little to no mistakes while frustrating defenders just how you slipped past them yet again.
But then something strange happens: People realize you’re a balling robot. Opponents seem to understand they cannot stop you once the ball reaches your hands. In other words, you are a non-Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator that can only be limited not stopped, but instead of the fate of humanity and the world at stake, you’re trying to win a 40-minute basketball game. You probably don’t understand that reference. Because you’re a balling robot.
What opponents do, attempting to diminish your impact and all, is intensively block any possible entry for you into the paint. They know if you have the ball in your hands under the hoop, you will score points. They know this because we all know this. They’ve seen the highlights and they’ve seen the numbers: The 66.4 field-goal percentage or the 12 times when you shot better than 70 percent from the field this season.So to limit your production, your enemies will front you, push you and overall do anything possible to deny entry position and therefore the ball. When opponents function at their best, like Notre Dame and especially Virginia did, you at best receive the ball on the low block coming toward the pass. If you are close enough to the paint, you will be double-teamed and trapped. If you are farther, say 12-15 feet, only one man will guard you because you have not received your latest software update and you do not have an accurate 12-15 foot jump shot. And being the technological paragon of basketball efficiency that you are, and because you play for Duke and Coach K, you will not force bad shots. You will pass.
Something has (kind of) revealed itself then: When your team needs it, Jahlil Okafor, you have not been able to take over a game. Impose your will. Demand the ball. Demonstrate you will not be pushed around. Fire up your squad. Instead, you have continued to allow the game to come to you, deferring to Tyus Jones to fulfill that emotional leader role on the court.
And what has been so confounding to outsiders is how this has worked for the most part. Eliminating what can only be described as the Luck of the Irish from Jerian Grant at the end of the game, your Blue Devils team should have defeated both Notre Dame and Virginia. Even though, for 90 percent of each game, your opponent appeared the better team.
Some perspective: Against Virginia, you played the worst first half you have all season. Three turnovers, two points, six rebounds, but 1-of-2 shooting. You refuse to waste possessions, it seems. Then, being made mostly ineffectual all game, you shifted momentum back to Duke with under eight minutes left. You caught an unusually lulled Virginia defense by surprise with an inbounds dunk. The next possession, you saw an opening at the top of the paint, and converted a running skyhook. Seeing you do this, Virginia tightened their defense on you, double-teaming you the next time down the court. They trapped you along the baseline. And you, not admitting defeat, jumped out of bounds to create a passing lane to deliver an easy assist under the basket to Matt Jones, who converted the play.
All this re-focused the attention back to you, Jahlil Okafor, and Virginia was caught switching late or in mismatches against Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, who began hitting the threes they could not all game.
That brief stretch changed everything. It sparked the rally. And even then, you were not ‘taking over.’ You saw small openings to exploit and then you hit them. Your refusal to play outside yourself has anchored a Duke team in very much need of surefire reliability because of its eight-man rotation. So, balling robot Jahlil Okafor, a certain deference to you is in order. You seem to understand precisely what this team needs and when it needs it and you go out and do exactly that.
Whether any of this will continue to work remains unknown. As does knowing if you are in fact the Player of the Year. You are the most efficient, the easiest to notice to casual observers, the exact player most coaches drool over having on their team. That is all true. But the rest of any of this equation results in a giant question mark. One, possibly, only a balling robot can solve.
Naismith Power Rankings
Each week, we’ll rank the top players in the Naismith race. These rankings are fluid and mostly for fun, but they matter ... to someone.
1) Jahlil Okafor -- I wonder what conversations between Okafor and Coach K are like. “Hey, coach, want me to make the correct high basketball IQ play every possession?” “Yeah, if you could.” “No problem, coach Krasizz -- K!”
2) Frank Kaminsky -- He may be ranked second, but the space between Frank the everything-but Tank and Okafor is miniscule at most. With games against Northwestern and Nebraska this week, that space will likely not grow.
3) Jerian Grant -- Against Duke, when Grant fumbled the ball and it bounced right back to him and he hit that circus shot, it was lucky. When he ran the same play the next possession, sucking Duke’s defense into the paint, jumped to shoot then dished it Steve Vasturia for a three? That was creating his own luck.
• Naismith Watch archives